Friday, September 24, 2010

Depleted Uranium and the End of the World as we know it?

Recently encountered this, which has given me pause.

Now, from what I understand about it, and from other sources I've seen, the DU issue splits along two lines:

1) those who have data, belief, testimonial, & anecdotal evidence that DU is toxic, pervasive, and a scourge on the planet. These maintain that those who use it in bullets (read: America) are callous, thoughtless criminals who will bear the responsibility of destroying a large swath of life over coming generations.

2) those who have data, belief, testimonial & anecdotal evidence that DU is "no big deal", no more harmful or radioactive than what your driveway contains and puts out on any given day.

Now, for some background data,
  • A primer on the issues at hand, as derived from this particular source:
    "Of course, when citizens here can consider the harsh realities of 'our' two recent incursions into Iraq, we must acknowledge that a vastly, monstrously greater human cost has attended this war among civilians who not only did absolutely nothing to incur the harms that befell them but also whose 'interests' we used to justify the invasion in the first place. A significant proportion of this damage has resulted, almost certainly, from depleted Uranium (DU) weapons.

    The massive controversy about this subject--what are the harms that have resulted from DU usage in weaponry, has led to all sorts of brouhaha, both on the web and in person, about which a separate post is forthcoming, which will also examine more closely the political economy and safety issues that today's article touches only briefly. This post will make clear that the evidence overwhelmingly supports a link between DU and grotesque health problems."
  • A different source, gathered from the article, corroborating a lot of this:
    "Statements and findings on dangers related to DU might be generalized under two broad headings, US government departments and non-US governmental groups. Although there are disagreements between these two broad groups, one fact is not disputed. If DU oxides are inhaled, there is a high probability that residual alpha particles will be distributed throughout the organs of the body and are potential sources of radiation emission. This fact was not thoroughly researched prior to the 1991 Gulf War and not until 1994 was an explosion/burn test conducted (Rostker, 2000)."
  • A source, nowhere near the article, speaking to the issue:
    "Returning to the allegations of significant health effects from the DU residuum of the Gulf War and Kosovo actions, it strikes this observer as odd that there seemingly have been no systematic long-term epidemiological follow-up studies of the potentially or allegedly affected populations, directed towards determining if in fact DU exposure is linked to the alleged excess of illness and discomfiture in these populations."
  • A hysterical Kindergarten-level exchange in some comments on some of the other sites:
    "Yet this writer is allowed to slander me."
  • A brilliant dismissal of this transparent attempt to create confusion, by this blog's writer:
    "Can you also discredit all 200 people involved in the 2003 world conference on radiation? What about the Japanese physicist, professor Yagasaki from Okinawa? They're all quacks, too, right?"
  • A video on the long-term harmful effects of living near or working in an enriched uranium plant that has left a DU environmental nightmare behind:
Now, I am just an ignorant boob in regard to the bedrock science in these issues, no doubt about that. I do have "2 fingers of forehead", though, as that old saying in my family goes, so I am capable of following arguments, lines of reasoning, stated evidence, and making my own conclusions; usually these will follow along the lines of whatever I've read, whether I agree or not.

I am also capable of noticing when I'm obviously being taken for a ride, when the evidence that a source offers is either misleading, aggressive, inconclusive, or worse. I can also extrapolate from the past - what I know of the past, what I've learned and seen by studying human history and human nature more generally. I also have access to simple common sense, which can come in surprisingly handy when looking at dense issues. Besides that, when properly motivated, I am even capable of going elsewhere to look at additional sources, information, data.

The writer that originally led me into this rat's nest, though, states an interesting point about all this - controversial issue, data vs. pseudo data, important life and death issues, policy issues, and the common folk:

"Scientists all too often reject popular opinion on the basis of imputations of ignorance when such accusations are, to say the least, unscientific. Evidence exists everywhere around us. Its applicability to almost all of the issues that are important to us--from health care to energy to matters economic and electoral--is more than adequate for intelligent decision making. Ignorance does not necessitate indecision, even if it does make uncertainty inevitable.

This applies with particular force in so many areas of modern life. Wars are supposedly only decipherable by experts, who conduct their policy confabulations in secret. Energy choices are allegedly beyond the ken of common folk, who must accept that certain data is not accessible to, nor understandable by, their pitiful pea-brains. Economic decisions follow the same pattern; and those related to healthy bodies and healthy minds; and to the education of children; and so on."

Now, people don't have much respect for common sense. Maybe because of that dirty little word, "common". And God knows it is this culture's great fetish that we all must be 'special' somehow, and we end up pulling 1,000 embarrassingly useless stunts to prove to ourselves we're 'better', more 'superhuman' than this or that one (too bad that no matter how 'special' you are you still have to eat, excrete, and eventually die, just like everybody else, but that's a subject for another time).

But aside from that, what's wrong with common sense? And, in seeking to understand complex issues, is it not the first tool we have at our disposal? Is not a common-sense understanding of an issue akin to the first grotty draft of a polished final work? As such, I offer here the common sense that first led me to accept that DU must be quite harmful:
  • The fact that the U.N. has called for banning the use of DU weapons is telling. It's one thing to have a random group of rabblerousers, or an ex Sargent whom the Army then disowned and whom you know nothing about, condemning the weapon. It's another when a long-standing, established international institution decrees the use of said weapon a 'crime against humanity'. DU proponents or apologists would have to turn 20 somersaults to shoot down whatever evidence led to the decision process.
  • One does not need a great imaginative leap to understand that a bullet capable of piercing and boring a hole into a hard steel tank is, more likely than not, extraordinarily damaging. When faced with one side stating the toxicity of this bullet, vs another side stating its relative benign qualities, I would obviously tend to side with those claiming its extraordinary harmful attributes.
  • There is a thing called Gulf War Syndrome which is something we've all heard about - and, to some extent, everyone acknowledges, even those who shrug it off as intense PTSD. Then there was this thing called Depleted Uranium used in said war, in addition to all sorts of other things, I'm sure - biological weapons, chemical weapons, the daily stress of death on the battlefield, the whole deal. Hmmm... a generation of veterans completely damaged and incapacitated. Evidence of a radioactive weaponry used big-time. Shucks, I guess a connection has been made.
  • Uranium is radioactive. I don't think even the apologists would argue with that. And anybody above the age of 10 knows that radioactivity is harmful. Therefore, toxic to mine, toxic to handle, toxic to employ. Sure, there is a set radiation emanating from the earth, and from the sun. Radiation of sorts emits from your microwave. Coal mining is dangerous and toxic, too. Guess what? Playing with scissors is dangerous, too. Guess what, if you run out into the street and get run over by a bus, that's dangerous too. Guess what? I don't care. I don't care how harmful coal is, it fits into a discussion about depleted uranium about as well as the hazards of running with scissors does. I don't care about solar radiation or my cell phone's radiation or even the potassium levels in my banana. Uranium is radioactive, therefore toxic to mine, handle, and employ. Simple. Solar radiation (even Uranium's natural radiation when left ALONE) is something humans have lived with thousands of years. You leave Uranium alone, I'm sure it's as tame as a plaster kittie figurine. But you start mining it, messing with it, and shooting it around at fast speeds and stuff, it's gotta do harm, right?
That's how common sense operates. Simple, simplified, if - then, direct.

But you know, common sense fails miserably when considering these weighty issues, especially those surrounding complex, very specialized subjects. Common sense, after all, is basically formed around our accepted assumptions - our paradigms, as it were. Even beyond what specific technical knowledge I might possess, or what rock-solid evidence I may have, if my fundamental assumptions/paradigms are out of alignment with the truths that the evidence seek to prove, I would have to put a lot of work in trying to see BEYOND this common, uninformed, sense, and glean the truth beneath.

So here I make an attempt at trying to formulate the base-line assumptions (the paradigm) of someone apt to believe that depleted uranium is just fine, thanks for asking.
  • Oh, that nuclear engineer, that weapons expert, he's really scary and mean and abusive and writes in big, threatening, obfuscating words. I better listen to HIM.
  • The government would NEVER, EVER do anything to harm me or anyone. If they say the stuff's safe, if all the tests they (supposedly) conducted, if they expose our troops to this stuff, if MUST mean it's safe. I mean, it's in NOBODY'S best interest to expose our troops, their families, and subsequent generations to something gross, toxic, pervasive, and deadly.
  • There are these bad ppl out there called conspiracy theorists, rabblerousers, malcontents. They're only happy getting everybody all upset about something. I can smell them a mile away. They're the kind who REFUSE to let me persist with this lovingly-tended fantasy that everything in the world is OK just the way it is, that eternal economic growth is possible and desirable, that the planet is NOT heaving under the weight of too much junk, that I and my descendants can just go on doing whatever we're doing for generations upon generations with zero consequences, no matter what evidence "those nasty people" put before me.
  • In my world, the level of environmental degradation, physiological harm, birth defects, and long-standing consequences that these people claim these weapons cause is INCONCEIVABLE. In my world, there are no such things as the birth defects these people claim. it's just NOT POSSIBLE. Period.
  • Yeah, harmful, so what. Everything's harmful. My aunt Rita smoked till she was 90, and she's doing just fine. Walt came back from the front missing a leg and completely fucked up. What of it? It's a war, not a carnival. Plus he was always a little weird to begin with.
  • Oh that, guy? That witness? He's no good. He once joined a fringe cult when he was too young or confused to know better. He drinks tequila mixed with NyQuil. These other sources say he's a misfit, a liar, and breaks bread with Neo Nazis. He has loud farts. He likes to pet rabbits. No WAY am I gonna listen to him, and no WAY am I gonna accept all the good, thorough, and honest work he's undertaken in spite of whatever light or grave shadow afflicts his particular humanness.
Do these sound like elements of the base paradigm under which a person liable to say "depleted uranium... no big deal" might be operating?

Does anyone see how these or other base-assumption paradigms might get in the way of honestly assessing the realities behind big issues? Anybody encounter such reasoning in like fashion, maybe among relatives or co-workers, insisting on destructive, vague, conflicted beliefs?

Aside from being a mildly interesting mind game, the underlying importance of reaching an honest assessment of the harm vs. nonharm of something like DU is fundamental. For, if my common-sense paradigm and all the good, brave work depleted-uranium-watchdogs have done is correct, we're in serious trouble. We're talking extinction-level trouble here.

And no, not just because of the environmental degradation, which is bad enough. Or even the long-term health degradation of huge swaths of the population. What gets me here is the permanent damage to reproduction mechanisms. As in, here we have an entire population who has lost the ability to regenerate itself.

I saw the pictures of the messed-up babies. I read the litany of grievous birth defects. After overcoming the nausea and horror, the only thought that remained was "a population unable to reproduce is a doomed population. If the damage extends to ever larger areas of the population as the war games encroach even closer, that's even larger areas who will be unable to reproduce normally. Hello, dinosaur world, with our own version of the asteroid."

I guess I get worked up over nuclear/radiation issues. I guess, when I think about all of this, with all these fancy destruction toys our noble governments have at their disposals, the line of "end in either a bang or a whimper" takes new resonance.